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John Kerrigan, Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603-1707

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008

599 + xiv pp., ISBN: 9780198183846, £30


Reviewed by Jonathan Hope


John Kerrigan’s contention in this flawed, but occasionally brilliant, book is that the discipline of English has been insufficiently aware of the archipelagic dimension of writers and works from the seventeenth century — too ready to read English in its ethnic, rather than linguistic sense, and hence construct anglo-phone literature (falsely) as England-centric. Instead, he urges us to read both canonical and unfamiliar texts as addressing, and emerging from, a network of geographical and political relationships between Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England.

There are several moments when Kerrigan’s material and thesis combine convincingly. A rereading of the alternative endings of the quarto and folio texts of King Lear (familiar ground for Kerrigan, who did acclaimed early work on Lear’s texts) shows how the two versions respond to new notions of ‘Britain’ after 1603. Chapter 3, ‘The Romans in Britain’ loops brilliantly from Howard Brenton’s 1980s play, to Cymbeline, to a consideration of the way Rome functions to refract ‘the matter of Britain’ in a number of texts from the period. The next chapter brings William Drummond, James VI’s poetic theories, and the slide into civil war, together in a profound reading of literature and history masterful in the way it evokes Drummond’s complex position in relation to the Covenant. Chapter 6, ‘God in Wales’, makes a compelling case for Kerrigan’s claim that ‘during the middle decades of the century, when Milton was writing prose, it was Wales, among the countries of the archipelago, that produced the most lastingly valuable body of religious verse’ (p. 195).

The strengths of the book are not a surprise, since Kerrigan is one of the finest scholars of renaissance literature. His edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is staggeringly good. There are flashier close-readers, but there are none more careful or more subtle. Kerrigan’s writing can be dense, but it is usually dense with thought and fraught with rich insights that reward patience. It comes as a shock, therefore, to find him, in the 90-page introduction to this book, writing with an entirely uncharacteristic lack of focus or assurance. Something about his topic causes him to circle unproductively, making nervous recapitulations, name-checking dutifully, worrying, trying to provide definitions for terms that should be unpacked over the course of the book, not sewn-up on page 23 (‘Britain’, ‘British’). The introduction is fractured and nervously skittish, like the first chapter of a PhD thesis, written to fend-off a nit-picking external. Kerrigan seems paralysed by the possibility that he will be accused of negligently falling into Anglo-centricism — perhaps because he has been spending too much time in the bear-pit of Anglo-Irish history seminars. No doubt this worrying was good for his soul, and a necessary stage of thought for the genesis of the book, but a proper editor would have told Kerrigan to ditch most of the first half of the introduction, and concentrate on those sections where he is most sure-footed (on ‘Languages’ and ‘Textual circulation’). Indeed, a proper editor would have told him to begin the book with chapter 2, ‘Archipelagic Macbeth’, since this, in its subtle reading of Shakespeare’s Macbeth via J.W.’s character of Mackbeth in the 1637 play The Valiant Scot, establishes in 13 pages, with examples, what the introduction fails to do in 90.

As the nervousness of the introduction indicates, the book is unsure about Ireland. The chapters on Irish material are weak, largely rehearsals of historical narratives rather than re-readings or rediscoveries of literary texts — perhaps because the literature, as Kerrigan frankly admits, is sometimes ‘abysmal’ (p. 308). The epilogue’s extended consideration of Walter Scott makes it clear what the problem is. Ireland does not fit in the argument that emerges from the other parts of the book, which is one about Britain, and the tendency of those thinking about Anglophone Scottish-English union to draw on Celtic material preserved in, or symbolised by, Wales. Ireland, as Kerrigan notes, is never drawn into this mythic unity — and the Scottish Celtic tradition only is after Culloden. Hence Kerrigan’s need to use Scott’s account of 1745 in Waverley to allow him to break his own temporal bounds, and push on to the nineteenth century.

This conceptual problem manifests itself in a profound structural fault. The introduction (90 pages) and epilogue (61 pages) dwarf any of the 10 individual chapters (generally 20-30 pages each) that ought to constitute the meat of the book. Such disproportion presages, accurately, an argument that begins by tying itself up in anguished terminological knots, fails to proceed via a series of fragmented studies, then attempts a recuperation. Kerrigan knows, I think, that the book is not working in the way he first intended: almost every chapter ends with an incantation of the word ‘archipelagic’, but this just serves to emphasise the uncharacteristically crude attempts to stitch the material together. And there’s a recurring, jarring self-reflexive note, like a footballer referring to himself in the third person, which reaches a peak of awkwardness on page 350 when Kerrigan suggests that one of Scott’s characters is so attuned to archipelagic thinking that he must have been reading the book.

It is hard to imagine many who begin at page one making it through the introduction, let alone the whole book, but this would be a shame. I came away from chapter 4 convinced that I should read, and teach, William Drummond. Chapter 6 made me eager to read the Welsh poets Katherine Philips and Morgan Llwyd — of the latter’s ‘1648’, Kerrigan says ‘The final section of [it] is so beautifully strange and various that I want to quote it whole’ (p. 203). The epilogue makes a major case for Scott. The attentive reader will notice where these writers are not from. Inside this overlong, uneven archipelagic book, there is a much better insular one.